Happy birthday, motion picture censorship.
It was March 31, 1930, when the Motion Picture Production Code was set in place — a set of guidelines created by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (later the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA) designed to ensure that movie wouldn’t rot the moral backbone of the United States. Amongst those first guidelines were bans on white slavery (yes, only white slavery), profanity (including “Jesus” and “God”) and ridicule of the clergy. Ah, those innocent times.
While the code’s potency faded throughout the 1950s, it wasn’t until 1968 when it was officially replaced by the MPAA’s rating system that remains in use today, created by the same body under a different name. But while the MPAA ratings are more forgiving than the Production Code — audiences are finally allowed to see interracial relationships! — it remains far from ideal, as can be seen from this list of ten movies that fought the MPAA’s initial decisions, and won. (Well, except for a couple of cases — but we’ll get there.)
THE WILD BUNCH (1969)
When director Sam Peckinpah added 10 minutes of footage to his classic Western for re-release, the movie’s rating changed from an R to an X, with the reason for the higher rating being the amount of violence in the movie. The strangest thing about the whole situation, however, was that there was no violence in the new 10 minutes of footage added to the X-rated version.
SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSSS SONG (1971)
It seemed almost too fitting that Melvin Van Peebles’ classic 1971 movie about a black man running from oppressive white authority was given an X-rating due to its (unsimulated) sex scenes. Appropriately, Van Peebles didn’t appeal the rating but protested publicly, declaring “Rated X by an all-white jury!”
NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)
What did the MPAA find objectionable enough in Oliver Stone’s intentionally transgressive satirical slaughterfest? Apparently, just about four minutes of violence — that’s all Stone had to cut out to take the movie from its first rating of NC-17 down to an R.
EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)
Because Stanley Kubrick’s last movie was contractually-obligated to get an R-rating and not the threatened NC-17, Warner Bros. deemed that the orgy scene should include cloaked figures inserted digitally after the fact to cut down on the amount of nudity onscreen.
SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER AND UNCUT (1999)
Turns out, the title of the big-screen version of Comedy Central’s no-holds-barred cartoon sitcom wasn’t exactly true; a number of cuts ended up being made to Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s animated classic in order to avoid an NC-17 rating, which studio Paramount had determined could not happen.
BOYS DON’T CRY (1999)
Fear of an LGBTQ Planet reared its head in the original NC-17 rating of this biopic of trans teen Brandon Teena. The rating came, apparently, in response to a sex scene between Teena and his girlfriend, but when challenged, the MPAA admitted that they “didn’t really know” what was offensive about the scene, although they were sure that it was. (After edits were made, the movie was released as an R.)
AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000)
Yet again, it was sex — and not, you know, the violence of the “psycho” of the movie’s title — which proved problematic for the MPAA, with a threesome prompting an NC-17 rating. After director Mary Harron cut it by a few seconds, everything was modest enough to get downgraded to an R.
REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000)
A rare occasion where a film was released in theaters with no rating, after its distributor disagreed with the MPAA’s decision to award the movie an NC-17, and an appeal to have the rating changed failed. (The reason for the high rating? Not the drugs, not the amputation, but a sex scene. Notice a running theme yet…?)
BLUE VALENTINE (2010)
One more time with the sex squeamishness; a scene which included oral sex was enough to get the movie initially rated as NC-17, before an appeal (and a publicity campaign that saw star Ryan Gosling accuse the MPAA of “supporting scenes that portray women in scenarios of sexual torte and violence for entertainment purposes,” but unwilling to do the same for a women receiving pleasure sexually) saw the rating moved to a more palatable R.
THE KING’S SPEECH (2010)
For once, it wasn’t sex, but explicit language that caused problems for this Best Picture Oscar winner — the fact that Colin Firth’s king had to use the f-word in an attempt to break his stutter was too much for the MPAA, which allows just one “fuck” per PG-13 movie. Instead, the movie was rated R, which didn’t seem to hurt too much, especially when an edited PG-13 version was released following its Academy Award win.